Sheade’s Equine Connection Counseling growing rapidly
By James Russell
Special to the TJP
Hallie Sheade has a problem: The Fort Worth-based equine therapist cannot turn away clients.
Through her Cleburne-based private practice Equine Connection Counseling (ECC), which specializes in providing counseling and psychotherapy to veterans and at-risk youth through interaction with horses, she sees about 25-30 clients a week. (The waiting list currently hovers at around 80 individuals.)
“I just can’t say no!” she said.
(She still, however, finds time to attend Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth, where she hopes to eventually join as a member.)
Sheade loves her job in part because she loves horses too. At 2 years old, the Illinois native was the only kid who went on those pony rides at the county fair. Her parents signed up the 5-year-old for horse riding lessons.
“It became my obsession,” she said. She was so obsessed, in fact, her parents steered her sister toward other hobbies.
“They couldn’t afford to have two kids obsessed with horses,” she said.
At 9 years old, she worked at a barn full of horses. She was especially attracted to Cowman, who liked neither people nor other horses, continuing her interest in horse-human relationships.
She studied psychology and biology at the University of Miami and later received a degree in counseling from Georgia State University.
The empathic workaholic who loves her job and horses has the data to prove she needs to provide her services longer than the usual counselor. She noticed that many of her clients were reluctant to end services once treatment goals had been met because they did not want to lose the connection with the horse. Many of them relapsed after termination of services.
For her doctorate thesis at the University of North Texas, where she earned the degree in 2014, she established a new framework for care, known as Spectrum of Therapeutic Equine-Partnered Services or STEPS.
After completing counseling, clients can continue their relationship with the horse by participating in supportive activities designed to help them build upon the progress and skills achieved during counseling. They can become active members of a horse community through which they can deepen their relationship with horses while also connecting with other people who share similar interests and experiences.
“The STEPS model is a revolutionary, one-of-a-kind approach to mental health treatment and ongoing wellness after treatment has ended,” Sheade said. “Counseling works and has a high outcome. But a problem in the mental health field is what happens post-counseling?” she added.
Using the model, in 2017, Heade and her husband, Paul Ziehe, a Marine Corps veteran and a certified therapeutic riding instructor, founded the nonprofit STEPS With Horses. It pairs horses with active and veteran military service members and their families, at-risk youth and others.
The STEPS approach is a great fit for veterans, said Ziehe.
As many as 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from posttraumatic stress, depression or traumatic brain injury and an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day. Many of these individuals go untreated, avoid traditional therapies or drop out of treatment prematurely due to the stigma, and sometimes discomfort, associated with seeing a counselor, Ziehe said.
Veteran John Halpin is a former ECC client who did not want to give up seeing his horse, a Belgian named Marshall. Halpin retired from the Marine Corps in 2009 after serving almost 25 years, with the final rank of sergeant major.
“I didn’t come to grips with some of the things I saw in combat and with the Corps in general,” Halpin said. “I started the groundwork with Hallie and picked the horse. He and I just bonded. The comfort and bond with the horse has a calming effect for me. It helps me to forget. It grounds me and helps me out in my daily life. It’s closed the loop for me.”
If Sheade and Ziehe are to help veterans like Halpin, however, they need some help.
ECC currently operates on the site of another nonprofit. But to successfully deliver and expand services, they need their own site. They recently launched a $1.2 million capital campaign with that goal in mind. Funds would go toward acquiring land and facilities and purchasing necessary equipment.
Sheade and Ziehe do not plan to keep STEPS confined to the Dallas/Fort Worth region. They hope to replicate the model elsewhere.
“We need land. But we will start with a barn. It just takes getting one person or a few people to help,” Sheade said.
For more information on STEPS with Horses, visit Stepswithhorses.org.